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Heavy Medal: A Mock Newbery Blog
Inside Heavy Medal

The Dunderheads, Part One

I have another picture book for your consideration–one with a longer, more independent text: THE DUNDERHEADS by Paul Fleischman.  What follows is the opening sequence of events, representing roughly one-fifth of the text.  It is reprinted here with the kind permission of Candlewick Press.     
 "Never," shrieked Miss Breakbone, "have I been asked to teach such a scraping-together of fiddling, twiddling, time-squandering, mind-wandering, doodling, dozing, don’t-knowing dunderheads."
That was her first mistake: the insult.
Mistake Number 2: no eye for talent.  An easy mistake to make, in our case.
Miss Breakbone hated kids.  Every time she made a student cry, she gave herself a gold star.
Confiscating was her speciality.
Rumor had it she’d bought her electric chair from selling all the stuff she’d taken away.
Then, one Friday, she went too far.
"Theodore!  Bring that magnifying glass up here this instant!"
She didn’t know that everyone called him Junkyard.  He was always digging stuff out of the trash cans–like the one-eared cat he’d found when we’d walked to school that morning.  You should have seen his face light up.
His mother was a maniac for cat stuff, and he’d needed a present for her birthday that Sunday.  He was set.
"And the cat!" snapped Miss Breakbone.
Mistake Number 3: the outrage.
Junkyard put them both on her desk. And then he started crying, right in front of the girls.  Miss Breakbone gave herself a gold star.
"But they’re mine," he said.
"Not anymore," she snapped.  She studied the cat’s green eyes with interest.  "And don’t even think about getting them back."
Mistake Number 4: the dare. 

THE DUNDERHEADS. Text © 2009 by Paul Fleischman. Illustrations © 2009 by David Roberts. Candlewick Press, Somerville, MA.

The Dunderheads take up the challenge, working together to break into Miss Breakbone’s house to steal the cat back for Junkyard.  In the jacket flap copy Fleischman writes, "The lure of the perfectly matched team is powerful and perennial.  Behind THE DUNDERHEADS lies not only OCEAN’S ELEVEN and MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE, but THE FOOL OF THE WORLD AND THE FLYING SHIP, THE FIVE CHINESE BROTHERS, and similar folktales from deep in our past."   If you have not yet read THE DUNDERHEADS, I hope this preview will send you scurrying to your bookstores and libraries.  If you have read it, then I welcome your initial impressions of the text as a possible Newbery contender.  I’ll weigh in with my own impressions next time . . . 
Jonathan Hunt About Jonathan Hunt

Jonathan Hunt is the Coordinator of Library Media Services at the San Diego County Office of Education. He served on the 2006 Newbery committee, and has also judged the Caldecott Medal, the Printz Award, the Boston Globe-Horn Book Awards, and the Los Angeles Times Book Prize. You can reach him at


  1. Monica Edinger says:

    Just scurried to my local bookstore and took a quick look at this one. Very clever indeed, but there were a couple of spots where the illustrations seemed significant (say when we meet Spider and at the end). Look forward to reading your justification!

  2. Oh, that is delightful! In this passage I think we get a good sense of some effective characterization and setting, and the sentence-level style is superb (“She studied the cat’s green eyes with interest”).

  3. For wonderful p.b. text, look at Bella And Bean, by Rebecca Kai Dotlich. It’s a story about poetry and friendship. One line alone could seize the day: “The sky poured stars like sugar.”

  4. Wait, that’s a REAL cat, right? I was just reading a couple of reviews that reference a cat statue, which a. changes the whole mood of the scene to me, and b. is far less awesome, although I’m not going to say makes it lose all its distinction. I guess I’d better go read the whole book. (PLEASE, GOD, LET IT BE A REAL CAT)

  5. Monica Edinger says:

    Er…and the cat illustration, evidently:)

  6. I went out to Amazon to at least view the first pages (actually first page only). It looks like a typical PB format.

    So what Jonathan has detailed is text encompasing the first 16 pages of what Amazon says is a 56 page book(PB).

    My only callout is the text reads way too old for a PB. However, it is a great story concept, an OCEAN’s ELEVEN break-in of a hated teacher’s house by a crew of misfit classmates…neat!

    Something about reading these lines reminded me of Holes(all good!!!). So, when I’m reading this stand-alone text my mind is thinking that these lines constitute the first two pages of a 60 to 90-page chapter book, or even a middle-grade book with an optional intermingling of small or full-page illustrations, ala Wimpy Kid.

    I wonder if the author hasn’t squandered a super story idea by choosing the wrong format to tell it. Assuming the sparseness of text continues there is little opportunity for the author to take the story to the next level that this concept affords.

    P.S. Re: “The sky poured stars like sugar.”…ICK!!!
    I wonder if Rodger S. would agree…

  7. No one is too old for a picture book. It is a format, not a audience-age-delimeter.

  8. I have The Dunderheads in my juv fiction section, not with the picture books, although we do regularly stick picture books aimed at older readers in with the chapter books. I thought The Dunderheads was great, but for me it falls a little flat without the fab illustrations.

  9. I wasn’t crazy about a story of kids breaking into a teacher’s house. Yeah, she deserves it, and I guess the electric chair tells you right away they’re going over the top. It reminded me of SWINDLE by Gordon Korman — pretty much the same idea (except a business owner who cheated him, not a teacher), fleshed out for older readers.

    Yes, it’s fun and clever, but it didn’t stand out for me.

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